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Marijuana Legalization And Expungement: What The Future Holds For Past Felonies

In recent years, marijuana legalization has been all the buzz, but it’s the most recent legal changes that promise the most significant revolution. How so? Consider California, which recently legalized recreational marijuana use, with certain stipulations, including erasing past convictions for minor marijuana crimes. And while California may be the first state to make this change, others are wondering what legalization might mean for those convicted of drug crimes in the past.

Committing To Change

While California is making good on its commitment to wipe out old marijuana convictions, with Los Angeles alone erasing 50,000 past convictions, other states that are weighing legal changes are also debating what to do about those carrying past convictions. In Illinois, for example, the Senate is considering a law that would allow those with low-level marijuana convictions to have those convictions cleared with the permission of a judge. This potential change comes more than two years after the state reduced possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana to a civil issue, rather than a criminal one. Petitioners must wait at least three years to make the appeal.

Similar debates are also taking place at the federal level, which is of particular interest since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. Under Senator Corey Booker’s proposed Marijuana Justice Act, would release those serving federal prison sentences for non-violent marijuana crimes committed before laws in their area changed. The goal of the bill, which is co-sponsored by four current Democratic presidential contenders, is to rehabilitate those charged with non-violent crimes and restore their rights.

Long-Term Consequences

Just how important is the current debate over marijuana convictions? For those with a second possession offense of 10-30 grams, or any offense of more than 30 grams, even in non-violent cases, it means a felony charge. And a felony conviction can have long-term consequences. For example, in Chicago, a felony charge can come with a serious fine (as much as $25,000), at least a year in jail, and – most significantly – loss of voting rights. In fact, in the majority of states, those with a past felony are disenfranchised for life. They may also have difficulty finding employment and housing.

Technology And Reform

With such wide-ranging consequences, erasing low-level felonies is a central concern for those reforming marijuana laws, but different systems pose different challenges. The Illinois proposal, for example, requires a three-year waiting period and a direct appeal to a judge. That’s a time-consuming process and one that will require real effort on the part of those who were convicted of such crimes. In California, however, several cities are working with Code for America to erase convictions.

In partnership with Code for America, a non-profit organization, California cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco are automatically erasing low-level marijuana convictions in minutes. Victims of past laws don’t have to do anything to appeal their cases, and government officials don’t need to commit time and money to evaluating each case, one-by-one. This could be the real revolution in marijuana law – the ability to erase past convictions with the click of a button.

While there remain many questions about how individual states will change their drug laws and whether there will be changes to federal law any time soon, those states that have modified their laws are making a statement about what comes next. California’s use of technology is just one example of how states can help those with past convictions move forward, but it’s a uniquely promising one, and other states should follow California’s progress closely.

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